James Risen accepts 2014 Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award for courageous, investigative journalism

By: David DiNicola and Sam LeBlanc on October 8th, 2014.
This year’s Lovejoy recipient could have been in jail on the day he received his award.

In January of 2006, journalist James Risen published a book that forever altered his life and helped set the tone for future interactions between the free press and the federal government. In State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, Risen described a number of previously classified activities conducted by the United States Central Intelligence Agency. Along with fellow writer Eric Lichtblau, Risen won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for a series of controversial reports documenting the National Security Agency’s surveillance of international communications (“Stellar Wind”) and the U.S. government’s Terrorist Finance Tracking Program.

In 2008, Risen was subpoenaed in relation to the investigation of Jeffrey Alexander Sterling, a former CIA employee who was eventually charged for violating the Espionage Act upon allegedly revealing information for State of War to Risen. The information Sterling was charged for revealing to Risen regarded Operation Merlin—a clandestine operation under the Clinton Administration to provide Iran with a flawed nuclear weapon design in order to delay the country’s weapons development program.

Though the subpoena expired in 2009, the Obama Administration renewed it a year later, prompting Risen to release an affidavit describing his personal and professional rationales for his refusal to reveal his sources. Risen criticized the Obama Administration’s antagonist relationship with the press, and has stated that he would go to jail to protect his sources’ confidentiality.

In an address to the College this past Sunday, Risen expounded the critical role journalists play in holding the government accountable for its actions. “The press and whistle-blowers are responsible for the information on the War on Terror,” without whom, the public would have no information on the war, Risen said. “Of course there are certain things that should be kept secret….The most important secret is the kind like where the convoy in Afghanistan is going to be in ten minutes….stuff you could never get or would want to get,” he said. Other than such immediate information that would directly endanger people’s lives, “There’s virtually nothing in the press that has endangered national security,” he said.

Nevertheless, the government continues to pursue journalists and whistle-blowers alike for revealing information to the public. He said this crackdown is “designed to suppress the truth on the War on Terror.” In the past, increased surveillance and the infringement on American’s rights was explained away because the United States was in a state of war, Risen said. There used to be a distinct difference between wartime and peacetime, he added, but “this period of war now seems to be endless….We’ve never had a period when wartime censorship has been tried to be extended into peacetime.” He said that the difference between war and peace is now far more indefinite, and Americans have accepted the reality of infringed rights “with barely a murmur.”

“[My] case has gone on so long that it’s almost like background noise now,” he said. “I’m trying to continue to work as the government continues to come after me.”

Risen, was the 62nd recipient of the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award, which presented annually to an individual who exemplifies courageous journalism. The award is named for Lovejoy, a Colby graduate and journalist who was murdered for his abolitionist sympathies while defending his printing press against a pro-slavery mob. The selection committee, comprised of a number of prominent journalists and ex-officio members Colby College President David A. Greene, Director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement Daniel M. Shea, and Chairman of the Colby Board of Trustees Robert E. Diamond, voted unanimously to bestow this honor upon Risen, in addition to an honorary doctorate at the College.

In his address, Risen discussed the importance of Lovejoy’s “dangerous sin of challenging conventional wisdom.” Charging his audience to exemplify the same “sin”, Risen noted, “We now know that Lovejoy was on the right side of history.”

The entire day was devoted to journalism, opening with a conference for student journalists that included a number of lectures, workshops and roundtables with local and national journalists. Risen himself delivered the keynote address. The conference, co-sponsored by the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement and the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, focused on this year’s theme of “Responsible Journalism.” Over 50 student journalists from the Echo and 11 other colleges throughout the Northeast attended the event.

The conference started in the morning and ran for six hours, offering student reporters and editors an opportunity to speak with professional journalists who held workshops and participated in roundtable discussions with students throughout the day. Journalists included Pulitzer Prize winning author and former Echo Editor-in-Chief Matt Apuzzo ’00 (now of The New York Times) and Eileen Sullivan, also of The New York Times, who won the 2012 Pulitzer for Investigative Reporting for their months-long series outline the NYPD’s stop and frisk policies in minority neighborhoods.

Following the student journalism conference, another former Echo Editor-in-Chief Rebecca Corbett ’74, Senior Enterprise Editor for the New York Times and member of the Lovejoy selection committee, moderated a discussion about the role of journalism in keeping the government accountable.

Accountability and the responsibility journalists have to the community at large served as the day’s primary themes. “The government has given me an interesting choice of giving up what I believe in,” Risen said. “Journalists have no choice but to fight back because if they don’t, they will become irrelevant.”